The Troy Davis case in Georgia has brought the death penalty right back to the front page of American news. Davis a black man faces the death penalty for killing a white police officer. As I write this Davis is only hours away from his sentence. Advocates for Davis argue that there are too many questions and too much evidence of his guilt to for the state to proceed with his execution.
Many people are at a loss as to why no one will stand up and say hey this man is innocent let him out! Unfortunately that is just not how our legal system works. I once saw a documentary that explained that the further up you go in the legal system, after your initial trial and various appeals the smaller chance you have of ever being set free. There are a few things that our system honors and values that are at play in this case. One of these is finality. Our system likes to make it clear that this is the decision and you can depend on this being the decision of the court in the future. The prosecution cannot have a redo, they only get one bite at the apple. Legal principles like double jeopardy rest on the need for finality. To some degree I think there is a sense that higher levels of the legal system do not like to admit that the trial court got this completely wrong this man was innocent. We like to believe that we have a system that is set up to determine the truth and majority of those incarcerated are guilty of the crimes they were charged with. Think about what admitting that Troy Davis is not guilty would mean for the state of Georgia? They would have to admit that our legal system got it wrong and this man is innocent. I would say NO court in America wants to admit the system is flawed.
The Troy Davis case brings up questionable witness identifications from people who have now recanted. I personally question any case that rests solely on an eyewitness but that is another blog in itself. Seven witnesses took the stand in Davis’ case and now say that their testimony was not accurate. Our legal system leaves determining the validity of witnesses up to the jury. The jury can consider their demeanor, previous lies, and sometimes even past bad behavior to determine if the witness is telling the truth. Within our legal system this is VERY important. I could not get on the stand and say I do not believe what another witness said based on my own interpretation because that is left up to the jury. When a case moves out of the trial court into the appeals process, the appellate courts give great deference to the jury and their determination on who was telling the truth. For example Bob may say things happened this way and Jen says things happened the complete opposite. The jury’s verdict is based on Bob’s depiction of the events, which means for some reason they found his story more credible. It could be that Bob was known as a truthful person and Jen was convicted of forgery before. Or it could as simple as their demeanor in the courtroom. Whatever the case may be the appellate court realizes that the jury witnessed all of this first hand in the courtroom and are better able to determine the credibility of a witness than an appellate judge reading a transcript. This is likely one reason why higher courts refuse to take this change into account in the Davis case. It’s clear that the jury found the previous testimony accurate based on their verdict. If an appellate court were to completely ignore the jury’s decision, some would argue that they are challenging the sanctity of the jury.
So how do we solve these problems? How can we improve our system to ensure innocent people are not convicted or sentenced to death? One colleague of mine argues that the solution to the Davis case is abolish the death penalty that way we will never have to worry about an innocent man being put to death for a crime they did not commit. That is one way but I think the solution starts at the trial level. Many of the issues that Davis now claims are best handled at the trial level. I have not done in-depth research on the Davis case so I am not sure if Davis’ attorneys addressed witness credibility at the trial level. Let’s assume they did not now we know strong challenges to credibility could have given the jurors reasonable doubt and they may not have convicted. It’s speculative I know but I make this point to say that great legal counsel at the trial level is essential. OJ Simpson is a great example of this. Many Americans are left to court appointed attorneys for their defense counsel. There are great lawyers that work in these offices but they are underpaid and overworked making it difficult for them to provide the best possible representation for their clients. I would love to see more effort put into improving this area. Improvement here could stand to change our legal system as a whole.
I would also like to see challenges made to the prosecutions unchecked authority to determine what cases they seek the death penalty. These decisions are left primarily up to the prosecution although public outrage plays a large part in it, i.e. Casey Anthony case. There is one fact that about death penalty that has always bothered me. In a case where the victim is white, the defendant is more likely to face the death penalty. Add in the race of the defendant and we see a large disparity between the number of African American defendants who face the death penalty for killing a white person compared to a white defendant whose victim was white. It makes me think that our justice system has essentially put a greater value on the lives of white Americans and that is disturbing! I would like to see the prosecutor’s authority in this area checked especially when we see the huge race disparities.